The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
Late last Saturday evening, European leaders collectively rendered the European Union irrelevant to global affairs. Through their choice of nominees to two of the EU’s top posts, and their decision to postpone sanctions on Russia even as its troops invaded Ukraine, they made it clear that they prefer a Europe that is internally incoherent and unable to defend its interests abroad. Whether the European heads of state and government acted out of ignorance or cowardice, the repercussions will be felt by ordinary citizens throughout the continent.
Indisputably, EU politics are more incoherent than ever before. The special EU summit appointed Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as the next president of the European Council, the body that convenes the leaders of EU member states to give policy direction. The president’s ostensible purpose is to embrace the interests of the entire continent (as opposed to those of individual member states), and to forge consensus among the various national capitals through extensive bilateral communication. Tusk may be a talented politician: He is the only re-elected prime minister of post-communist Poland. He may also be a well-liked figure in Brussels -- he did, after all, revive Poland’s standing within European circles after the tumultuous leadership of Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- Poland’s former president and prime minister, respectively -- and is known as a tough negotiator in the European Council.
But Tusk is nevertheless an exceedingly unlikely architect of continental consensus. Unlike his predecessor, outgoing Council President Herman Van Rompuy, whose background in Belgium’s federalized politics gave him decades of experience building bridges among many competing factions, Tusk is not known to be a skilled coalition-builder. Both of his governments in Poland relied on only one coalition partner in the lower house (and none in the Senate). Plus, Tusk speaks no French and has limited command of English. It is hard to believe that he could construct creative bargains among his former colleagues given all the trouble he’ll have simply communicating with them in a common language. The message in his appointment is clear: National leaders in Europe would prefer that no one push a distinctly European perspective that might get in the way of their lowest-common-denominator approach.
Second, and making matters far worse, the summit’s nominee to serve as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is Federica Mogherini, the current Italian foreign minister. In contrast to Tusk, Mogherini is multilingual. She is also a breath of fresh air in the geriatric milieu of Italian politics. But she lacks two of the most essential characteristics to be an effective spokesperson for the EU’s foreign policy: executive experience and international stature.
Mogherini has no background in the EU’s complex institutions. She has no first-hand experience in the tricky bureaucracy of the European External Action Service which she will head, nor has she spent much time participating in the Council -- after all, she has been the Italian foreign minister for only six months. Mogherini cannot claim any prior ministerial or executive office -- her previous posts within her political party were of a very different caliber. She has only been an elected politician for six years. Nor is she well-known outside Europe, unlike some other potential candidates whose names had been making the rounds of the Brussels rumor-mill (including German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, or Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt).
Mogherini’s clout when attempting to speak in Europe’s name will therefore be minimal -- foreign governments are unlikely to take her seriously. To make matters worse, she is reputed to be overly eager to accommodate Russian interests. Whether true or not, only time will tell. Yet this perception alone makes her appointment a dangerous signal to Russia, especially at a time when confronting Moscow is the EU’s most important foreign policy challenge. Tusk’s supposed harder line against Moscow cannot offset this worry. It is the High Representative, at times along with the President of the European Commission, who will have to represent the EU in any talks or meetings with Moscow.
Third, and exacerbating the personnel decisions, the leaders at the summit decided to equivocate on further sanctions on Russia. Even with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in attendance -- warning about Russian tanks crossing the border and leveling towns -- European leaders could only agree to ask the European Commission to undertake preparatory work for presenting proposals within a week. Rumors had been swirling about serious economic sanctions (including banning Europeans from purchasing Russian government bonds) and strong symbolic steps (such as a European boycott of the 2018 soccer World Cup, to be held in Russia). Yet the overall sense at the end of the summit was that the timing of the sanctions was vague, and the criteria for imposing them unclear. This is hardly sufficient to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from further aggression.
These decisions do not doom Ukraine to oblivion. Tusk may turn out to be a skilled operator in his role as president of the European Council -- much as the outgoing President Herman Van Rompuy has done. The European Parliament could also choose to exercise its power to veto the entire European Commission unless the High Representative’s post is filled by someone with the stature, experience, and capability to stand up for European values and interests around the world. And the European Commission may eventually come up with sanctions that really bite.
The deeper lesson, however, is still a dark one, for it speaks volumes about the current leaders of EU member states. They are wary of filling top EU positions with high-profile political figures who could challenge their national interests in the name of a common European good. And individually they are weak and powerless -- no European state today can significantly influence world affairs alone. Thus, by appointing underwhelming personalities to important posts, European leaders are undermining their own ability to tackle the major challenges of our time, such as a resurgent and expansionist Russia.
This weekend’s summit was closely watched in both Moscow and Washington. To the Russians, the decisions amounted to a green light for escalating their attacks on Ukraine -- Putin now knows that the EU is unlikely to be a serious obstacle to his plans. To the United States, the summit proved, once again, that even on issues that should rightfully be the EU’s problem, Europeans will drop the ball and shirk responsibility. Alone, the EU’s member states lack power. Together, they lack ambition. And either way, Putin is about to take them for a ride.